Universities are taking precautions against threats of violence and terrorism.
Alex Davis sat in the lobby of Dehority Complex on a Thursday night. A student near him told a University Police officer that she saw a man carry a gun into Woodworth, the neighboring residence hall. When he looked out the front windows, Alex could see students coming outside as the University Police evacuated Woodworth.
Alex and other resident assistants told students to go to their rooms. By the time Alex was back in the lobby, the officer told the resident assistant on duty to press the armed assailant button, and the alarm sounded.
He watched as students from Woodworth entered Dehority one by one after University Police officers checked each individual ID. Some were calm while others seemed terrified, according to Alex.
The rest of the campus was under a “shelter in place.” This means that students and faculty were advised to go inside and stay inside.
University campuses across the nation struggle with violence. Between 2013–2015, there have been seventy-six times where a firearm was discharged on a college campus, according to Everytown Research. While these shootings may have caused fear, that doesn’t necessarily classify them as terrorism.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines the crime of terrorism as an act that is meant to influence or affect the government through coercion or intimidation, or retaliate against the government conduct. Domestic terrorism is more specifically terrorism carried out in the U.S. by an American citizen.
The difficulty lies in determining whether or not a violent act falls under this category of terrorism or simply a violent act.
The Virginia Tech massacre of thirty-three people was the largest mass shooting on an American college campus. Early in the morning of April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed two students in a large co-ed residence hall on campus. In total, he killed thirty-one people, including himself. After the first shooting, Seung-Hui shared a confession video with NBC News. In the video, he said the shooting was an act of revenge, but he never clarified against whom.
According to federal law, a violent act must appear to be intended to intimidate a group of people or the government in order to be considered an act of terrorism. This is where it becomes difficult to determine whether or not violent acts, like the one carried out by Seung-Hui, are considered terrorism.
But whether or not a violent act is classified as terrorism, universities across the nation have still taken steps to assure that students and faculty know how to handle those situations, through both administrative changes and student programs. This will improve preparedness—even if the threat isn’t what it appears to be.
Ball State Police Chief Jim Duckham sat at the dinner table with his wife when he was notified that a man had been seen carrying a gun into Woodworth. He responded to the notification immediately, heading to Woodworth to work with Assistant Chief Al Williams and the incident commander for the situation, Lieutenant David Huff. Officers were split between investigating the situation through asking questions and evacuating and searching Woodworth. Duckham managed the situation and communicated with the Strategic Communication offices.
The Ball State police department has a general procedure for a possible armed assailant situation. After a call has been made reporting the situation, it’s the department’s job to gather as much information as possible. The department sends officers to the location immediately after the information is gained, but that’s as far as the general plan goes, according to Duckham.
The majority of the officers’ actions are determined on a case-by-case basis, so the rest of what they do is continuously evolving. Officers usually have a short amount of time to figure out a plan and act on it, says Duckham.
The department has broad emergency plans to fit most crisis situations. According to Duckham, each situation has an officer in charge who acts as the incident commander. For a situation on a large scale that involves a lot of people, the chief of police may be the incident commander with several officers at the scene. This was the case during the Woodworth incident.
However, the basic plan is altered to fit each specific crisis situation.
To keep students, faculty, and family informed, Ball State uses an emergency notification system. The police department generally issues these notifications, but only at the command of the supervising officer. After emergency notifications have been sent, the supervisor notifies Duckham, who coordinates with Strategic Communications to form a plan. As soon as a situation is resolved, the department issues an all-clear notification.
But in the situation at Woodworth, Strategic Communications issued the emergency notifications. The police department was too busy managing the situation, according to Duckham.
The notifications system is designed to keep everyone informed as the police department receives more information. The more information that’s provided, the more people are able to prepare—hopefully leading to a safe resolution of the situation.
According to the Jeanne Clery Act, places of higher education are required to notify students when emergency situations are happening, like Ball State does. They also have to keep a public crime log, publish an annual report, and disclose campus security policies so that everyone is informed.
But some schools are working to increase both preparedness and awareness even further.
Virginia Tech’s police department pairs with the city police to spread awareness. The school also uses an emergency notification system to alert campus about nearby threats, as required.
The Virginia Tech Police Department has doubled in size to include around fifty sworn officers, as well as increasing the number of security cameras around campus—measures that will hopefully mean attacks like the one they experienced in 2007 won’t happen again, or they will at least be more prepared to deal with them.
Virginia Tech Chief of Police Kevin Foust says the school has made several changes to their security system since the shooting, as well, which involve both administrative changes and improved student preparation.
Preparing For Threats
Abdul Artan, a student at Ohio State University, crashed his car into a group of students on campus on the morning of November 28, 2016. Abdul then got out of his car and stabbed people in his reach, injuring a total of eleven people. Soon after, the university tweeted an emergency alert to students and faculty telling them to run, hide, fight.
At Ball State, Amy Beckett stood at the front of her crisis intervention class and spoke about the problems Ohio State was facing. She asked her students what positions they would want to hold if they were at the school. Who would want to talk to the media? Who would want to check in with victims in the hospital? Who would want to be a dispatcher? But the most important question was at the center of her class’ purpose: How would the students return the Ohio State campus to a safe situation?
Beckett teaches her upper-classmen criminal justice and criminology students how to handle various types of crisis intervention. Crisis, by the class definition, is an upset of equilibrium. Beckett’s class uses Robert’s Seven Phases to teach students how to restore an environment to its original status. This crisis management plan is used by police officers, crisis consultants, and even psychologists.
The phases start with gathering information and assessing the danger of a situation. They then progress through identifying major problems, exploring alternative solutions, and determining and following an action plan. The final step in the seven-part plan is a follow-up. Beckett says the phases establish trust and even address personal hostage situations.
This is similar to the procedure used by university police during the situation at Woodworth.
Beckett’s students also learn about street-level leadership. These leaders are the original responders in a crisis situation, before police arrive. Even though the street-level leaders aren’t highly trained, they can be beneficial when it comes to stopping what’s happening in the moment. In the Woodworth situation, the student who saw the possible threat showed street-level leadership by notifying police immediately, which was important in resolving the situation.
Ball State offers a criminal justice and criminology degree, but since 9/11 other universities across America have created specific counterterrorism programs. Both Henley-Putnam University and the University of Massachusetts enhance criminal justice degrees by offering master’s and doctorate degrees in terrorism and security studies.
Other schools have created programs to better inform students of what to do in a possibly threatening situation.
At Virginia Tech, this was one of the biggest changes after the massacre. The school implemented an aggressive training program that the university police department uses to prepare students and faculty for violent situations, called Personal Emergency Preparedness.
The police department also teaches the Run-Hide-Fight program, created by the city of Houston as part of the Houston Ready program. The first part of the program involves teaching students and faculty to evacuate the area as soon as possible and to not dial 9-1-1 until they are completely safe. If running isn’t an option, the next step is to hide.
Fighting is taught as a last resort. If a fight breaks out, the potential victim shouldn’t stop fighting until the assailant is incapacitated or the opportunity to escape arises.
These programs are meant to decrease fear and increase awareness of the proper procedure and actions to be taken in emergency situations. But some would argue that they do the opposite, and actually increase fear, especially in less severe situations.
Some armed university police, Muncie police, and State Police stood outside Dehority and Woodworth while others searched for the gunman. Alex and other students received texts and emails from Ball State’s emergency notification system telling them to stay inside. During the two-hour search, students didn’t receive any notifications regarding the gunman’s location.
To Alex, the scariest thing about the situation wasn’t seeing armed officers lined up across the front doors of his building—It was the fear of not knowing. He didn’t know exactly what was going on or where the gunman was, and that’s what worried him the most.
Eventually Alex started to question the severity of the situation. After half an hour of no updates and no further action, his main concern was protocol and his fear dissipated entirely. By the end of the night, Ball State had lifted the shelter-in-place and concluded that there was no longer a threat to the campus. While some Dehority residents had remaining fear, most were annoyed. They were locked inside their rooms with the alarm sounding for nearly two hours.
The armed man never drew his gun from his holster, according to Duckham. The situation was a misunderstanding. The man with the gun had a permit and when he was found, he says that he was unaware of Ball State’s no-weapon policy. Students were afraid of the possibility, not the reality.
These situations have not been uncommon on Ball State’s campus.
The school experienced a similar event three years prior. A student yelled that someone was carrying a gun in the Health and Physical activity building before a loud door slam was heard. A staff member heard the commotion, locked themselves into an office, and called the university police. The incident brought Muncie police officers as well as officers from the Delaware County Sheriff’s office and Indiana State Police to the scene. As the officers evacuated the building, they found that students and staff had locked themselves into rooms for safety. More than three hours later, university police found no gunman or evidence of a threat.
Three years later, in February of 2016, the campus was notified of a suspicious package found at the parking services office in the L.A. Pittenger Student Center. The entire building was evacuated. A bomb squad and Delaware County Sheriff’s K-9 unit arrived at the student center to help manage the situation. An hour later, the campus was told that there was no longer a threat.
The suspicious package was a pizza box filled with change that was delivered by an angry student for receiving a parking ticket.
The past three threats at Ball State were false alarms that created fear greater than the situations themselves. However, even with the prevalence of false alarms, these procedures, programs, and changes are still necessary. It’s the fear of another violent act that motivates a more productive and alert security system.